Take 5: Team Summit’s new alpine director Greg Needell
If only Super G had been a discipline when Greg Needell was on the ski racing circuit.
As a student athlete in the ‘80s, he attended Stratton Mountain School in Vermont — the East Coast equivalent of heavy-hitting ski clubs from Colorado, Utah and across the Rockies — before joining the ski team at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. He took up coaching his senior year and has hardly looked back since, especially now that Super G is part of the game.
“That would’ve been my favorite back then, for sure,” he said. “It’s my favorite now as a coach. It didn’t become a sport for us until I was already a few years into college, but I really think it’s the purest form of ski racing.”
This season, some three decades after Super G joined the Olympic roster, Needell comes to Team Summit Colorado as the Copper-based club’s new alpine director. His coaching resume reads like a list of who’s-who in the alpine world: Washington’s Mission Ridge Ski Team in the early ‘90s, California’s Mammoth Ski Club in the late ‘90s, the U.S. men’s World Cup ski team from 2002 to 2009 and, before coming to Summit, the Aspen Valley Ski Club. Through it all, he’s been drawn to the fundamentals, just like the best Super G skiers.
“There’s one run — you have to except and anticipate terrain with no opportunity to ski on the hill,” he said. “You really are living by your ability and wits and brain, and that’s what I like about it. It demands the most attention.”
He brings that level of attention to his new position, taking over for former alpine director Erik Leirfallom. As a first-year director, Needell spent most of the summer analyzing a beast of a team, with four training mountains and roughly 225 athletes — and that’s solely the alpine program.
With two months before the first race of the season, the Summit Daily News sports desk spoke with him to hear more about his ski club philosophy, his plan for Team Summit and how coaching Ted Ligety can be no different than working with hundreds of young, dynamic skiers.
Summit Daily News: You recently moved your family to Summit. Does it feel like home yet, or will it take a little while to really settle in?
Greg Needell: We’re in transition. My son is a freshman in college, so we just took him to school. We’re moving out of Aspen, but my wife still lives there, still works there. Right now, as far as the job, I’m just getting to know the existing staff, then finding coaches who can take over the weekend courses. We also have conditioning programs right now for several groups. There’s a lot happening — the season is here.
SDN: Over the years, you’ve had experience coaching at the sport’s elite level, working with the U.S. Ski Team and Olympians like Ted Ligety. How does coaching make you a better program director?
GN: First of all, it gives you a ton of credibility with staff and parents and athletes. It’s a little easier to have their full attention, and that really does go a long way. It’s also important to know how the professionals operate, whether that’s equipment preparation, how they schedule their day, their nutrition needs — just knowing how hard we worked to get them to the highest level.
You can relate all of that to running a program. It’s everything from tuning — how to tune correctly and just how much attention that takes — to understanding the travel demands. It was a big deal to learn some of the equipment craft first-hand, from the best. That’s about the only thing we can control. If you’re on the right product for you, if it’s tuned correctly and taken care of, you will do the best with the unpredictable elements.
SDN: Freeskiing and snowboarding are huge draws for ski clubs now, but alpine is still the most popular discipline — it’s the original. How can Team Summit skiers stay competitive this winter?
GN: In this sport, there are only two things you can control: No. 1 is your equipment, and No. 2 is your effort. Everything else is up to the weather and your environment and the other people you’re competing against.
Again, it comes back to equipment and effort. Those are the first two. But we also need to work closely with our ski area partners: Breckenridge, Copper and Keystone. Having a good partnership there — just letting them know what we need and knowing what they need — will create a symbiotic relationship.
SDN: Would it be better to have a single-mountain facility, similar to the set-up Ski and Snowboard Club Vail has at Gold Peak in Vail?
GN: While it would be nice and convenient to have a facility for the team, I’m philosophically on the other side of that. I like taking advantage of all the terrain we have in Summit County. Even if Copper was our only home base, I’d want to move all across the mountain — use the ski team training center and Copperopolis Main Vein and all of it. That really is one of our advantages — we get to us Breck and Keystone and A-Basin all season long, and not many teams have that much access.
SDN: Do you miss the demands of being in the trenches at a race, or will you make time to coach at Team Summit?
GN: When I was at Aspen, I spent the first year cruising around, looking at the programs and reorganizing. The second year, I coached a group fulltime, which was tough to manage but a lot of fun.
Here, at Summit, I think there are more logistics because of all the ski areas. Instead, I want to help each group in portions during the season. That will help me evaluate, so we can change and evolve into the future. For example, the older groups have big races early in the year. If I can help them get ready for those races, even early in the season, it will help us validate the program. As the season progresses, I’ll move down through the age groups just because the younger skiers don’t have their big competitions until March. The goal is to put my boots on and get out there 5-6 days per week. I’m not much of a desk sitter.
SDN: Personally and professionally, why is now a good time to make the move from Aspen to Team Summit?
GN: Well, again, the training opportunities we have with so much terrain are incredible. I think we have people in place and funding in place that will allow us to grow and get results quickly. We can be a strong player very soon. Personally, it was a family change. My only son is off to college, so me and my wife are empty nesters. It was just a good time to try something know, and I do think that Team Summit has a lot of pieces in place to make a big leap in the ski world.
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